absolutely believe that al-Qaeda and the threat of al-Qaeda and
Taliban senior leadership are critical to stability in the region.
... But I also believe that a strategy that does not leave
Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted
--U.S. and NATO Forces
Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, speech at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies, October 1, 2009
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the outcome of
the current White House debate on Afghanistan to the future of
vital U.S. national security interests. Early discussions have been
characterized by wishful thinking about the U.S.'s ability to
negotiate a political solution in the near term and confusion about
the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency in
Afghanistan. A shortsighted view of the long-entrenched problems in
Afghanistan and Pakistan risks plunging the region into deeper
instability, thus reversing recent gains against al-Qaeda and the
The success of increased drone strikes against al-Qaeda and
senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan's tribal border areas over the
last year has apparently led some U.S. officials to mistakenly
conclude that these types of operations alone can end the threat
from al-Qaeda and its extremist allies. Analysis of the Taliban and
its evolution over the last 15 years reveals, however, that its
ideology, operational capabilities, and close ties with al-Qaeda
and other Pakistan-based extremist organizations allows the
movement to wield tremendous influence in both Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Thus the U.S. cannot hope to uproot extremism from the
region without denying the Taliban the ability to again consolidate
power in Afghanistan.
Voices in Pakistan
There have been several positive developments in Pakistan over
the last six months, such as the Pakistan military's thrust into
the Swat Valley to evict pro-Taliban elements and significant
improvement in U.S.-Pakistani joint operations along the
Afghanistan-Pakistan border that led to the elimination of
Baitullah Mehsud in August. Moreover, the Pakistani military is
reportedly preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, where
al-Qaeda and other extremists have been deeply entrenched for the
last few years.
But this recent success in Pakistan should not mislead U.S.
policymakers into thinking that the U.S. can turn its attention
away from Afghanistan. In fact, now is the time to demonstrate
military resolve in Afghanistan so that al-Qaeda and its affiliates
will be squeezed on both sides of the border.
If the U.S. scales back the mission in Afghanistan at a time
when the Taliban views itself as winning the war there, it is
possible that the recent gains in Pakistan will be squandered.
Anti-extremist constituencies in Pakistan that are fighting for
their lives and the future of Pakistan are begging the U.S. to
"stay the course" in Afghanistan, with full knowledge that a U.S.
retreat would embolden extremists region-wide. Washington should
listen to these voices.
Negotiation from Position of Weakness
There appears to be some wishful thinking within the Obama
Administration regarding the U.S.'s ability to negotiate a
political solution with the Taliban in the near term. A survey of
the failed attempts by U.S. diplomats in the late 1990s to convince
the Taliban to improve their record on human rights and to turn
over Osama bin Laden should inform current U.S. deliberations about
the efficacy of such attempts at engagement.
After eight years of battling coalition forces, the Taliban
ideology is even more anti-West and visceral now than it was in the
1990s, and the bonds between al-Qaeda and the senior Taliban
leadership are stronger. In addition to close ties forged on the
battlefield and congruent ideological goals, the symbiotic
relationship between the two Islamist organizations has been
reinforced by intermarriage. For example, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the
top leader of the Taliban, is reportedly married to one of bin
Despite these strong ties, there is a perpetual desire in
Washington to try to distinguish the Taliban leadership from
al-Qaeda and its global agenda--a desire that has little basis in
reality. The goals espoused by the senior Taliban leadership and
al-Qaeda do not differ enough to justify separating the two
organizations with regard to the threat they pose to U.S. national
security interests. If the Taliban increases its influence in
Afghanistan, so does al-Qaeda.
Some in the Obama Administration appear to advocate allowing the
Taliban to control certain parts of Afghanistan or including their
leaders in governing structures. The risk of pursuing these
"top-down" negotiations right now is that the Taliban is in a
relatively strong position in Afghanistan and would be able to cow
moderate Afghans who support a democratic process.
A top-down negotiation with hard-line elements of the Taliban at
this time would also constitute an abandonment of America's Afghan
partners who are fighting for a better future for their country.
These Afghans are fighting to avoid a return to Taliban rule, which
included complete disregard for citizens' rights--particularly of
women (including outlawing education for girls)--and the systematic
destruction of the rich historical and cultural traditions of the
country in order to force a barbaric interpretation of Islam on the
Afghan people. If the U.S. caves in to the Taliban, America would
be seen the world over as a weak and unreliable partner, unwilling
to defend the very ideals upon which the U.S. itself is
Although there are no signs that the senior Taliban leadership
is ready to compromise on a political solution or break its ties
with al-Qaeda's destructive global agenda, there is advantage in
pursuing local reconciliation efforts that bring the
non-ideological "foot soldiers" of the Taliban into the political
process. The goal of such a strategy is to put military pressure on
the top Taliban leaders and to protect the population from
intimidation by the Taliban while simultaneously convincing local
insurgents that they are on the losing side and would benefit by
laying down their arms and joining the mainstream political
Do Not Undermine Friends and Embolden
President Obama must give his military commanders the best
chance for success by meeting their requests for the troops and
resources necessary to fully implement the counterinsurgency
strategy adopted by his Administration in March. As General
McChrystal warned in his October 1 speech: "We must show resolve.
Uncertainty disheartens our allies, emboldens our foe."
If the Obama Administration chooses to deny its field
commander's request for more troops and instead seeks to engage
Taliban leaders in negotiations with the vain hope that these
militants will break from their al-Qaeda allies, the results would
likely be disastrous. Many Afghans that currently support the Kabul
government would be tempted to hedge their bets and establish ties
with the Taliban, while Afghans sitting on the fence would be much
more likely to come down on the Taliban's side. President Obama
must take the long view and avoid shortsighted policies that
undermine U.S. friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan while
encouraging America's enemies.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South
Asia in the Asian Studies Center and James
Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.